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April 25, 2006

Implants help child emerge from silent world

From: Jackson Hole Star-Tribune - Casper,WY,USA - Apr 25, 2006

By The Associated Press

ATHOL, Idaho (AP) -- When preschooler Kimberly Hunt was diagnosed as profoundly deaf two years ago, her mother made a choice that seemed like the only one: cochlear implants.

The first of two $45,000 electronic sound-transmitting devices was sewn into Kimberly's skull last summer. Within weeks, the child who once didn't respond to slamming doors began to hear.

"She got turned on July 1," Karen Hunt, the mother of Kimberly and three other children, told The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash. "On July 4, we went to every Fourth of July parade we could find."

Kimberly relished hearing the bangs that went along with the firework displays, her mother said.

Hunt is one of a growing number of parents of deaf children who are turning to the improvements promised by cochlear implants.

"If your child needs glasses, you get glasses. If your child needs a leg, you get a prosthetic," she said. "It's the same thing."

But the popularity of the devices has come over the protests of some in the deaf community, who say the implants -- sometimes called a "bionic ear" -- could eradicate a culture complete with its own language, customs and rewards.

"That's something I try to educate people on. It's a culture they're trying to preserve," said Russ Patterson, president of a local chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America. "I try to tell the hearing population: Deafness is not a disability for them. It's an identity."

Critics of the implants say that people who try to "fix" deafness fail to recognize the inherent physical and psychological integrity of those who are deaf.

"There was a lot of hostility on the part of the deaf community to a person who had cochlear implants," said Dr. Lesly Loiseau of the Spokane Audiology Clinic.

But that attitude appears to be changing, at least slightly, as more and more people seek the cochlear implants, experts said.

"I think you still have your firmly deaf people who are not interested," said Dr. Gayle Chaney, an audiologist with the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind in Gooding. "But it's not as loud."

Dr. Michael Olds with the Spokane Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic, performs the implantations. Annual implantation rates in the region have risen from as few as 20 a few years ago to about 30 last year, Olds said.

Worldwide, about 100,000 people have received the implants, about half adults and half children, according to a study by University of Michigan researchers.

The increased popularity has coincided with the increase in hearing screenings for newborns. Relaxed standards by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration -- which now allows implants for people with lesser hearing loss and children as young as 12 months -- has also played a role, he said.

"It used to be the age of detection was right around four years," he said.

The cochlear implant uses a tiny electronic device with a microphone and speech processor to pick up sounds. Those sounds are turned into electric impulses, and those impulses are sent directly into the brain. The device is named after the cochlea, a tiny, shell-shaped organ in the inner ear.

Though the implants don't cure deafness any more than glasses cure nearsightedness, they come close enough for many parents.

Dee Bailey of Coeur d'Alene had her 6-year-old daughter Ciera implanted with a single cochlear device when she was just two. Now the child has two implants, and Bailey said the results are impressive.

"She's a pretty good chatterbox. She's very social and outgoing," Bailey said. "Within a couple months, she was recognizing her name, saying 'Mom' and 'Dad."'

The prospect of not using implants was more daunting than the surgery, Bailey said, because Idaho's only school for deaf children is in Gooding, far across the state.

"It would mean putting our daughter on an airplane and shipping her off every weekend," Bailey said. "For us, it was kind of an easy decision. This was the route that we wanted to go."

Hunt also wanted her daughter to be implanted as soon as possible.

"I'd read all about being deaf and about how time is of the essence and how she'd only have a fifth-grade reading level if we didn't hurry," she said. "I was just hoping she was deaf enough just to go with the implants."

Kimberly now speaks 85 words and smiles when her mother calls her name, Hunt said. Despite the success, Hunt still wants Kimberly to be part of deaf culture, able to use sign language and understanding deaf history and community. Sometimes she fears that the procedure will preclude that.

"I worry about how we'll be accepted because we've implanted," she said.

As the recent wave of children with implants grow older, attitudes on both sides of the debate will likely soften, said Olds.

"These children are growing up with the attitude, 'You use sign; I use an implant,"' he said, "instead of this strict line in the sand that existed before."

Information from: The Spokesman-Review,

Copyright © 2006 by the Casper Star-Tribune published by Lee Publications, Inc., a subsidiary of Lee Enterprises, Incorporated